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Ask just about anyone who played hockey in Brandon, Manitoba, over the past three decades about Kelly McCrimmon and they’ll know the story.
Darren Ritchie has heard McCrimmon tell it so many times over the years, he started making fun of his former coach.
“If you ask him, his plan was to farm,” said Ritchie, the current general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings, while holding back a chuckle.
“I don’t believe him, because he’s such a good hockey guy.”
Farming and hockey, maybe in that order, long have been McCrimmon’s passions, and the new Golden Knights general manager often uses the story of his own career path as a cautionary tale to countless aspiring young players in western Canada.
Once content to run his family’s grain farm in small-town Saskatchewan, McCrimmon instead became one of the most successful coaches and executives in Canadian major-junior hockey.
“As much as you think you know what your future holds, it might play out completely differently,” he said.
McCrimmon, whose promotion from assistant GM became official Sept. 1, is a “hockey lifer” known for his keen scouting eye and business acumen. In 2015, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock called McCrimmon one of the “two best hockey men, period” he knows.
But McCrimmon’s true talent for the past 30 years is building teams around high-character people, which he showed again with the Knights.
After decades of riding buses to rinks in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, the 58-year-old has proven to be the perfect complement to president of hockey operations George McPhee.
“They’re like Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside,” Knights majority owner Bill Foley said, referring to the famous 1940s Army football backfield of Glenn Davis and Felix “Doc” Blanchard. “Kelly is really a character guy. I have the utmost respect for him.”
Hockey in the family
Byron McCrimmon was a local hockey legend in the village of Plenty, Saskatchewan (current population: 164), and sons Kelly and Brad also were obsessed with the sport.
The brothers were extremely close and played together in Brandon during the 1978-79 season, helping the Wheat Kings to the WHL championship. Brad McCrimmon, nicknamed “Beast,” went on to become the 15th overall pick in the 1979 draft and played more than 1,200 NHL games, winning the Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989.
Brad McCrimmon died at age 52 in the 2011 plane crash in Russia that killed all but one member of the Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl before he coached his first game with the team.
“I never felt in his shadow, ever. It was never, ever a burden,” Kelly McCrimmon said. “I was always tremendously proud of him, and the fact we got to play that season together is something with the passage of time and with life’s events that I cherish even more.”
McCrimmon continued his hockey career at the University of Michigan, and after graduating in 1984 with a business degree, he and his wife, Terry, returned to the farm in Plenty.
But he couldn’t stay away from hockey, serving as player-coach for the Kerrobert Tigers of the senior Wild Goose Hockey League before he coached three years in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
McCrimmon then returned to Brandon as an assistant coach in 1988 and was promoted to general manager the following year. He took over as head coach in 1990 and went on to become the Wheat Kings’ all-time winningest coach during his three stints (1990-92, 2004-2011, 2013-2016).
In 1992, McCrimmon bought one-third ownership of the Brandon franchise from partner Bob Cornell, and it soon became the family business. To this day, Terry McCrimmon is listed as the team’s receptionist on its staff directory; daughter Chelsea is the controller.
“It was only then when I bought into the team when I realized I wouldn’t be going back to farm,” said McCrimmon, who became sole owner of the Wheat Kings in 2000. “I’d be working in hockey for a career.”
The WHL is one of three major-junior leagues in the Canadian Hockey League and consists of 22 teams in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. It is open to players age 15 to 20 who hail from the four western Canadian provinces and 20 U.S. states west of the Mississippi River, including Nevada. Matthew Gross of Las Vegas was selected by Prince Albert in the 2018 WHL bantam draft.
Along with drafting and developing young players, WHL franchises also can make trades to improve their roster, making it a perfect training ground. McCrimmon is permitted to retain ownership of the Brandon franchise while working for the Knights.
“The WHL, I’ve always said, is the NHL light,” McCrimmon said.
McCrimmon had a hand in the development of several current NHL standouts who played in Brandon, including Knights right wing Mark Stone, Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien, Philadelphia’s Nolan Patrick and Ivan Provorov, and St. Louis’ Brayden Schenn.
He’s also been willing to take chances on players who worked hard but may have been less talented, according to Ritchie.
“He was the first one who gave me a chance to develop my skills,” said Stone, who played for the Wheat Kings from 2008 to 2012. “I was always looked at as slow and weak, and I think he kind of looked at me as tall and smart.”
McCrimmon was named WHL executive of the year three times (1995, 2010, 2015), as well as Canadian Hockey League executive of the year in 2010. He led the Wheat Kings to the WHL title and an appearance in the Memorial Cup, the championship tournament for Canadian major-junior hockey, during his final year as coach in 2016.
From the time McCrimmon bought into the Wheat Kings in 1992 until he was hired as the Knights’ assistant GM in 2016, Brandon won more games than any other Canadian Hockey League franchise.
“Kelly is one of those guys that has kind of been a hockey lifer,” said Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who played junior hockey in Brandon when McCrimmon was an assistant coach. “It was inevitable, I think, in everyone’s mind that if and when Kelly wanted to turn pro or try his luck on the pro side of it that he would be a successful person.”
Surrounded by good people
McCrimmon was courted by NHL clubs throughout his time in Brandon, most notably in the summer of 2015 after Toronto hired Babcock as coach.
McCrimmon interviewed for an assistant general manager’s position with the Maple Leafs, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave a Wheat Kings team that expected to contend for the WHL title.
“When I look at what I was doing here in Brandon, it would take something pretty special for me to leave it,” McCrimmon said. “I’m a person who loves to build teams and be involved in that process, and there was never going to be a better opportunity to do that than working in a situation like we have in Las Vegas with an expansion team.”
McCrimmon was hired as the Knights’ assistant GM on Aug. 2, 2016, and his influence can be seen at all levels of the organization.
Multiple Knights players, including forward Ryan Reaves, played junior hockey in Brandon or another WHL city. McCrimmon is widely credited with engineering the trade and long-term contract extension for Stone.
Assistant coach Ryan Craig is a former Wheat Kings captain, and assistant Mike Kelly was Brandon’s head coach for one season.
Also, director of player personnel Vaughn Karpan was McCrimmon’s teammate in Brandon for one season, and assistant director of player personnel Bob Lowes is the second-winningest coach in Wheat Kings history.
“He always has good people around,” Ritchie said.
McCrimmon’s experience navigating the NHL expansion process made him a leading candidate for the GM job with the incoming Seattle franchise, though he never interviewed. The Edmonton Oilers also had interest in McCrimmon for their vacant GM position this spring before he removed his name from consideration.
McPhee, who relinquished his GM title in part to help retain McCrimmon, confirmed in May at the time of the promotion that the Knights were contacted by at least one club seeking permission to interview McCrimmon.
“He would have gotten a GM job somewhere else,” Foley acknowledged.
McCrimmon now serves as the first point of contact for other general managers and will represent the team at GM meetings.
While McPhee retains the final say, he and McCrimmon will collaborate on all hockey decisions as they have done throughout their time working together.
“I don’t know if there is another guy who is more well equipped to do this,” McPhee said. “He’s well read, and he’s a deep thinker. You’re not going to outwork him. He never has a bad day. And again, he’s as straight as they come. High integrity, very, very well respected in the hockey community and very, very well liked as a guy. Great guy to have a beer with. He’s the whole package for me.”